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Last Updated: Monday, 21 July, 2003, 08:59 GMT 09:59 UK
Canada's refugee policies in flux
Lee Carter
In Toronto

Canada's policies towards refugee claimants are in the process of dramatic change, driven by the need to reform a system that many say has become bureaucratic and slow, and as a response to renewed security concerns following the September 2001 attacks on the US.

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre has proposed a new refugee system in which asylum decisions would be made by government appointed officers, rather than tribunals and more claimants would be detained while they await a decision.

Refugee claimants denied status would still be allowed to appeal the decision to a newly created tribunal. This would still satisfy the terms of a Canadian Supreme Court ruling demanding that refugee claimants must be given a fair hearing.

Mr Coderre insists that the proposal is guided, not by a desire to crack down on refugees but to speed up and reduce the costs of the current system.

Numbers decline

According to 2001 statistics provided by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, out of a total of 250,346 immigrants, 27,894 were refugees.

That figure has dropped somewhat since September 2001 due to a tightening of the Canada-US border, across which many asylum seekers come to Canada.

US-Canada border
A Canada-US deal aims to stop "asylum shopping" on either side of the border
Some refugees who arrive here are government sponsored. These are usually people who have already been living in refugee camps and have been referred to Canada through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Under this class, officials decide who gets in. Once they are accepted they get income assistance for a year and other services to help them adjust and integrate.

But many more are refugee claimants who enter Canada, and declare themselves as asylum seekers. As in most countries, a refugee is defined as someone who has a well-founded fear of persecution or if returned home faces torture.

At the moment, claimants make their case to a board in order to stay in the country. But this process can take years.

In the meantime these people can apply for welfare or seek work but are not considered permanent residents.

Disappearing in US

The Canadian refugee board is grappling with the biggest caseload in its history.

The board had a backlog of nearly 53,000 cases by the end of 2002.

Ahmed Ressam
The case of Ahmed Ressam threw the asylum issue into sharp relief
The system of allowing many refugee claimants to live in the community while they wait, has also been sharply criticised, especially in the US.

Some of those asylum seekers simply disappear over the US border, where they melt into their communities, often in large cities like New York.

A possible turning point in Canada's immigration policy came on New Year's Eve 1999.

Ahmed Ressam, an Algerian man from Montreal, crossed by ferry from British Columbia on Canada's west coast, into the US.

There, American officials uncovered explosives, apparently destined for an attack on Los Angeles airport.

He was convicted in an American court on nine counts of terrorist conspiracy.

Many Canadians were shocked to discover that Mr Ressam, originally a refugee claimant who was denied asylum in Canada, had nevertheless managed to continue to live in Montreal for seven years.

He and others took advantage of Canada's poor security measures obtaining fake passports and identities, and even travelled abroad for terrorist training.

Since then, the Canadian Government has had to counteract the image that many US officials and the media there have of their northern neighbours: that Canadians are soft on terrorism, immigration and security.

Criticism

Canada has signed an agreement with the US to halt what has been called asylum shopping - refugees who have been denied or think they will be denied asylum in one country, then crossing the border to apply in the other.

Deciding to slam the door on refugees who travel through the US has earned Canada rare criticism from the UNHCR as well as human rights groups.

They say that America's policies are nothing to emulate. They are critical of the US for creating a system that permits inspectors to make the on-the-spot decision to immediately deport people if they are not satisfied that the applicants have a credible fear of persecution.

Ethiopian and Somalian taxi drivers tell their stories of conflict and hunger and how, despite their lowly jobs, they are grateful to the country that took them in
These groups also accuse the US of the use of widespread detention and automatically detaining people from certain countries such as Haiti.

Immigration lawyers are also dismayed that in other ways, Canada's system, once among the most generous in the world, appears to becoming more and more like its powerful neighbour to the south.

Critics say Canada is more concerned about protecting its all-important cross-border trade than retaining an independent refugee policy.

But a large majority - 73% of Canadians - want tougher immigration and refugee policies according to a recent poll carried out by the firm Compas for a national newspaper and broadcaster.

The poll also found that 65% of Canadians support the harmonisation of border security between the United States and Canada as the most effective way of protecting the country from terrorists.

Stricter system

It's hard to tell from polls such as these whether Canadians think there are too many refugees or whether they are more worried about security and trade.

Canada has always depicted itself as a country welcoming to those persecuted in other countries.

In the 1960s Canada even took in hundreds of thousands of draft dodgers and conscientious objectors to the Vietnam War who crossed over from the United States.

It's a feeling most palpable in a city like Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world, where by and large people seem to get along and empathise with one another.

Here, Ethiopian and Somalian taxi drivers tell their stories of conflict and hunger and how, despite their lowly jobs, they are grateful to the country that took them in.

It's a sentiment echoed by many different ethnic groups who have suffered persecution in their countries of origin.

The immigration minister's proposed overhaul of the system still has many hurdles to cross before it becomes law.

But it seems Canada is moving more towards, than away from, a stricter system like Australia's, in which civil servants decide claims and more people will be detained.




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